Navy reservists are playing a key role in shipyards from Maine to Hawaii during pandemic

Michael Chen, an electrician's mate first class, is one of nearly 1,400 Navy Reservists deployed to the nation's four shipyards as part of the Surge Maintenance program.


By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 3, 2021

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FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Almost 16 years ago, the Navy launched a plan to identify Reserve sailors with maintenance backgrounds, familiarize them with shipyard operations and then send them to work there during their annual two-weeks of training.

Under the so-called Surge Maintenance program, these reservists would be groomed for full-time deployment at one of the nation’s four shipyards in the event of a wartime emergency.

“If the balloon goes up,” said program director Capt. Richard Sussman, “that’s where our team gets to surge and provide that force multiplying support to the shipyards.”

The balloon went up, but the enemy was microscopic and unforeseen.

“The irony is that it wasn't a great-power competition or some adversary that resulted in the need for our sailors to get called to service,” Sussman said during a recent phone interview with Stars and Stripes. “It was this coronavirus that I think surprised all of us.”

The four shipyards — Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Washington and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Hawaii — had already been grappling with maintenance delays for years, even before the coronavirus pandemic crippled the economy last spring.

A Government Accountability Office report issued in August found that “having enough people to perform the work” was one of two key causes of maintenance delays for aircraft carriers and submarines for fiscal years 2015 through 2019.

The Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees the shipyards, took steps to protect shipyard workers considered at highest risk of severe complications from the virus by placing them on administrative leave. As much as 25% of the workforce was on leave between mid-March and late June, according to the Navy.

Maintenance schedules at the shipyards took a hit.

But with President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on March 13 due to the pandemic, Sea Systems Command was allowed to call up reservists for the Surge Maintenance program’s largest ever mobilization, Sussman said.

“We had our first boots on the ground in July,” Sussman said. By the end of 2020, just over 1,360 Reserve sailors were deployed to positions in the shipyards.

That is roughly the number expected to remain deployed through most of the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, which is when the mobilization authorization is set to expire, Sussman said.

“This was all very calculated – the duration, the people that we were sending, the phasing that we utilized,” Sussman said. Some sailors are being deployed for 15 months, while others for less than a year, he said.

“That was based on the demand signal at the yards and based on the skills set,” he said.

Steven Wall, a 41-year-old machinist mate first class, was called up from his home in central Wisconsin to begin work at the Pearl Harbor Shipyard on Aug. 20. He is among the 186 SurgeMain sailors now deployed to Pearl Harbor.

“We're all prepared for it,” Wall said of deployment in a recent phone interview. “Maybe we don’t expect it, but we're all ready for it when it comes, like every branch in the military.”

Wall was an active-duty sailor in the submarine force from 1997 to 2001. For the past 10 years, he has spent his annual Reserve training in Navy machine shops.

“So, I'm able to take the manning of the boat so they can focus on different tasks as I operate their systems for them and accomplish the work for the shipyard workers,” Wall said.

“In my case, right now I'm saving man-hours not only for the shipyard, but I'm also saving it for ships force on the boat, helping them meet their deadline for getting underway,” he said.

Asked about how seamless it was for a part-time sailor to parachute into the shipyard as part of SurgeMain, Wall chuckled.

“I'll say it was nerve-racking operating onboard equipment again as a reservist, but fortunately the Navy trains active-duty sailors like no other,” he said.

When he arrived at the shipyard, Wall met with the sub’s commander and command master chief, and they went over the details of the vessel’s operation.

“Within two, three days, I had the confidence of the boat and the confidence of [the machine shop] to start operating the system,” he said.

Michael Chen, an electrician’s mate first class, deployed to the Pearl Harbor shipyard from San Diego in July.

He served four years in the Navy right after graduating high school in 2001, then transitioned to the Reserves and earned an electrical engineering degree.

He has been tasked with fixing electrical deficiencies among the shipyard’s eight looming cranes as each undergoes planned maintenance.

He is also working on projects to upgrade electrical components on the cranes and to analyze and update a database identifying root causes of failures of motors and generators on the cranes.

It is a stark departure from his civilian job designing circuit boards for a defense contractor that builds combat training equipment for the U.S. and its allies.

“[The shipyard] gave me training about the cranes that gave me a high-level understanding of how things work so it was not a difficult transition, from my perspective,” Chen said during a phone interview.

With a better understanding of how coronavirus spreads and protective measures in place, most of the shipyard workers who were once on administrative leave have returned to the job, Sussman said.

With the civilian workforce of the shipyards largely back to pre-pandemic levels, the SurgeMain cadre is poised to spend the next seven months pushing the maintenance schedule up to speed.

“The mission, frankly, is to catch up on the work that got backlogged as well as to support the maintenance in its current cycles,” Sussman said.

Twitter: @WyattWOlson

Michael Chen, an electrician's mate first class, poses in front of one of the massive cranes at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Hawaii.